Credit: Poster for the film Tіnі zabutih predkіv, engraving by Georgy Yakutovich, 1964 granted by Pavel Gudimov’s art center Я Gallery
A lot of people are familiar or at least have heard about the concept of American dream, so in my opinion every country and every nation must have their own dream which drives them through centuries pushing to improve and to search for their roots, to reevaluate their ideals and goals. But is there such a thing as the Ukrainian dream? I would say it embodies a self-made person (a man and a woman) who achieved the tops on his\her own coming from the simplest background, yet who is in the balance with nature, live in peace in the small cozy house which one can call home, with a person they love and respect; it is the one who loves a neighbor, who works in piece, who is close to the culture, and can claim to be a free person.
“Being a Ukrainian means to be the host. In the word “host” sounds and freedom, and labor, and care about the world. … In the foundation we put of the principle of “host”, the host of his\her destiny, the host of home and family, to have the host’s attitude to any deed. To be the host is the ontological principle that goes back to the original Ukrainian tradition: this is how Ukrainians of the past centuries talk about themselves; but also in the European tradition, this principle is expressed as pastoralism, and a person as a shepherd.”
We dream of barefooted childhood and value “freedom, prosperity and development”. Are we able to achieve it though? Are we able to live our dream? Is not it there something problematic about the word ‘dream’? Many generations were trying to answer these questions but there is always something unobtainable left about it.
I have watched Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors about 10 times since my high school and every time I find something new: during the last re-watch I realized that it is the recreation of the Ukrainian dream, it shows a sincere attempt of the main characters to achieve it and their struggle to become that ‘host’ and just be happy. In my personal opinion it is fair to start my list of overviews with this movie, which is undoubtedly is a masterpiece and one of the diamonds from the world cinema treasure box. It is a synonym to the lost national identity, it creates the ideal image of the Ukrainian nation, not mentioning any kind of government or oppressor, there are just people who live and work in their cultural peaceful natural surroundings. J. Hoberman stated that “In this overwhelmingly beautiful movie, a sad, short, brutalized life is elevated to ecstatic myth”.
Sergei Paradjanov, illustrator - Julia Tveritina, the poster for "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Exhibition", 2016
Interestingly, how the creator of this movie, Sergei Parajanov (Сергей Параджанов), not being a Ukrainian authentically although he was born in USSR, was able to look so deep into the Ukrainian soul, to create one of ‘the most Ukrainian’ movies in the history. There are many legends about where he lived during the filming process, how queasy he was about the details, about his misunderstanding with the cinematographer (Yuri Ilyenko, (Юрий Ильенко)) which led to the duel,
that his choice for the main female role was given to Larisa Kadochnikova (Лариса Кадочникова) at once the director met her, and that Ivan Mykolaichuk (Иван Миколайчук) was not the first candidate for the main male character, which is quite crucial because it was his first role in the cinematography and maybe he would not be able to build his career if he did not get his role. This all adds up to that mythical aura already existed around the film.
In fact, the movie is based on the novelette written by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (Михайло Михайлович Коцюбинський) Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini Zabutykh Predkiv/ Тіні забутих предків). Since the high school I fell in love with this book, and because it was a part of the school program everyone who has studied in independent Ukraine knows it. There is another story that at once Parajanov read it, he got an idea that he must transform it into a movie. It is fair to say though that movie does not exactly follow the plot, skipping, changing or interpreting differently some moments: one of those is the end (the death of Ivan). There was not given so much attention to the mythological side of the Ukrainian culture which is explicitly demonstrated in this masterpiece. Importantly the cultural background of Hutsulschina (Гуцульщина),Western Ukraine, the themes of love, social status, marriage, culture, mythology are kept and poeticized by Paradjanov. It was called as the story about Ukrainian Romeo and Juliet, which is satisfied through the plot of two competing families of Paliychuki and Gutenyuki, whose members hate and kill each other, but guess what, – their children Ivan Paliychuk and Marichka Gutenyuk fall in love with each other and die because they cannot “be the couple”.
Noticeably, the movie is divided into parts, as if it has chapters (The Pasture, Loneliness, Workdays, Christmas, and so on) hinting to its literary origin. Names are symbolic, summarizing and explanatory. Every single shot is full of the culture, the western Ukrainian traditions and symbolism, which was gorgeously demonstrated for the whole world: I am proud to discover that this poetic picture appears to get more about 40 international awards, about 30 prizes on film festivals and to get into the Guinness World Records. Once Emir Kusturica said that this was the best movie ever filmed.
Jumping right into observation about the culture one can immediately see it the clothing style which is clearly Western one, exposing the national elements as national smock sorochka (сорочка) or vyshyvanka (вышиванка), headdress (Palagna), apron, Christian cross (Ivan and Marichka), jewelry (Palagna), stripes (small Marichka). The color red brightly pops out from Palagna’s family symbolizing wealthiness and health.
At some point we see Palagna holding the red umbrella which is clearly something which came from the city, hinting that her family is wealthy without extra words. The viewer is widely exposed to the tradition of Christmas celebration (Caroling and wearing masks), funeral procession, wedding and divination.
Couple of words about music, Miroslav Skorik (Мирослав Скорик) in addition to his original soundtracks he tried to preserve the authentic sound of the national songs, which definitely brings us closer to the cultural background. The musicians were invited directly from the Western Ukraine. No one actually did something like this before. In the movie there are several scenes where national instrument trembita (трембита) is used, and in order to record them the transportation of those giantic instruments were on Parajanov’s own money.
Additionally, it is important that this movie was filmed in Ukrainian language and by fortune was not translated in Russian like most of the movies in USSR of that time. That would have ruined the director’s initial intention and, who knows, maybe this significant moment would change the destiny of the film. Parajanov himself fought a lot for it to happen, but he managed and today we are able to watch this masterpiece in original along with the other world movies.
In the Western Ukraine for a long time the movie was screened under the name Fire Horses. But I would like to pay attention to the original title, which I would read that those Shadows of Ancestors are the Ukrainian dream, which was forgotten and crushed by the reality. The original text obviously can explain more, because it provides us with mythology and fairytale-like story, but it is definitely the allusion to the ancient culture of Western Ukrainians. One would say that some concepts reflected in both story and movie are completely wrong for the today’s society, that for example the woman’s role is diminished and simply used as an instrument in patriarchal hierarchy. You can tell that in this culture love is a synonym to marriage, and vice versa. In my opinion this is exactly what is problematic: we see the love of Ivan and Marichka, but they both die, they cannot exist in the real world, because what they are is precisely the Dream.
When Ivan marries Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva (Татьяна Бестаева)), he does it because he has to get married one day, which is imposed by the imperfect society, consequently one sees the abuse and broken relationships, even the scene of their marriage is one of the brightest demonstration of that, they wear a yoke, he undresses her as his thing, he takes her ‘virginity’ from her, he does not want her then and she cheats on him without even hiding and when he dies she just pretends that she is upset, she says the exact same words which said Ivan’s mother when her husband was killed, the same words were pronounced by Marichka’s parents when she died.
But the difference is that Palagna says them because (again!) the society expects her to say it, so-called ‘deformed’ and unpurified culture. Interesting is the scene where Ivan bites an apple: he does it right before we are told that he decided marry Palagna. Would it symbolize that he ‘tasted’ a sin with her, foreshadowing that their marriage doomed? There is the other evidence: their wedding of episode met a lot of criticism, because director decided to put yoke on both characters, which had nothing to do with real tradition. This negative reaction was provoked because there is an expression that if somebody is in yoke it means they work as extremely hard as a bull in a field, carrying the burden on their shoulders. We do not see the same thing with Marichka, he feeds her with the red berries instead, giving her something instead of taking.
Paradox is that even though she gets pregnant from him, one would call this relationship pure, because there was love, respect, understanding and the desire to look in the same direction of future development.
The special and unusual camera movements and techniques are especially important: the vision was created by Yuri Ilyenko (Юрий Ильенко) and Viktor Bestayev (Виктор Бестаев) and was called the stream of images; I would call it modernism because this estimated ‘chaos’ of filming expects its viewer to be already prepared, being familiar with the background and generate meanings, and thus all the elements work together. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson called Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors “a flurry of hysterically modernist techniques”. For example, the camera moves as if it is sight of the person who actually runs to see what happened (death of Marichka); the camera turns around looking up, does not properly show what happened: Ivan jumping in the water to see dead body; the falling stones hint that Marichka fell from the rock, then we just see her head laying on the rock, then we see a figure struggling in the strong current of the stream. When Ivan sees dead Marichka, we are shown only her legs, which is symbolic because in Slavic tradition when funeral procession carries a deceased person, they carry him\her with their feet to the front.
The scene, where Ivan and Marichka dance and everyone stands in the line as if they perform on the stage of a theater which is unusual for the film directed scene.The scenes in the forest where first Marichka and then Ivan walk: it is difficult to follow them because it is filmed through the trees and branches.
This gives double feeling: 1st one is as if we (those who watch) follow them: an attempt to recreate the ‘reality’ feeling and even the 3D effect, because when I personally was watching I wanted to push those brunches away, they physically bothered my sight.
The 2nd suggestion is that it was an attempt to create the presence of those mythical creatures (more explicitly shown in the book) who were following characters, which gives the feeling of that otherness, of the mythology and thriller. When Ivan walks in the forest and sees or he thinks he sees Marichka or creatures. The death of Ivan is filmed symbolically: the grey lifeless hand of Marichka takes him and we hear the scream; next shot is the movement of the red brunches.
In the original piece though one sees the creatures from the Ukrainian western mythology such as scheznik, chuhaistr (щезник, чугайстр) and after the last dance with whom he follows the voice of Marichka and falls from the cliff. The main action starts when the colours lose their brightness and become dull, as the life of Ivan. In general, it is fascinating how organically is the transformation of characters, e.g. from children to adults. The director gives just enough information to make the viewer think, guess, connect points and lines, to look into the traditions and yet discover them at the same time. This kind of cinema has name the poetic cinema and it appeared in first half of 20th century.
Poetic cinema is known to be full of symbols, which justifies above mentioned Paradjanov’s queasiness for the specific details in filming, for example, the scene with a rain, after Ivan leaves, was re-shootted about 10 times while water’s temperature was only 2 degrees. There is a horseshoe which Ivan puts on the hoof while Palagna is around him. the Horseshoe is a symbol of success which is promised in their marriage but still stays only as a hope. She is staying in her role of woman being connected to the nature, holding the horse’s leg, while he is “bringing the technology” and dominates the culture. It is intensified in the same episode by the fulfilling sexual tension between them, which is broken with a torn necklace which Ivan pulls from her neck on the day of their marriage. This also could be seen as the loss of virginity. This is also representative of the role of women in the society of that time.
Another symbol is in the scene with the fire, where the fire is the metaphor for the fire inside Ivan which “should to out by itself” while we see the door constantly closing and opening as if this door represents the state of his heart.
We often see the black lamb: small Ivan carries it on the funeral, Marichka picks it up before she dies, then it appears at her grave as the reminder. This brings back to the ideas of being the host and the shepherd of your own destiny literally taking it to your hands. And this is what I can say the least, there is much-much more to read into it! Each detail was sew out and there are no coincidences. I might not read all of them, and even those which I do might be not the initial thought, but oh well, as once was said, the author is dead. ☺
The last, but not least important is that recently in 2013 was filmed remake on this story or at least people perceived it as such, which I promise to do in one of my next reviews. It would be interesting and fun to see what we can compare. 😉
I started this post with the discussion of the Ukrainian dream. Is it possible? Can we ever achieve it? There will always be someone to be unsatisfied and to dream. For the moment being I can only say that dream has its name not randomly, consequently it will always stay in the field of dreams, unless someone eliminates it making it real.